Sonja Kaye Blair-Adams grew up in Letcher County, Kentucky, and was 21 years old when she was killed, according to police. Credit: Courtesy of the Kentucky State Police

After 47 years as little more than a local ghost story, Kentucky State Police announced Wednesday that an unidentified murdered woman discovered near Harlan is Sonja Kaye Blair-Adams.

Local residents at the time coordinated a volunteer funeral and donated flowers. Members of the Harlan County Rescue Squad carried her to the hillside paupers cemetery, where she was buried in a discounted coffin among a haphazard collection of poorly marked graves.

“It’s a great day for folks in Harlan to be able to get a name with a body and start from here and hopefully ask the public for information to solve this murder,” said Trooper Shane Jacobs, a spokesman for the Kentucky State Police, which has been involved with the case since it was first opened.

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Blair-Adams grew up in Letcher County, Kentucky, on the other side of Pine Mountain, where she was found stabbed to death on a remote trail in the steaming summer heat of June 1969. She was 21 years old when she died, according to police.

Until this week, she was known only as “Mountain Jane Doe,” “Little Shepherd Trail Girl” or “Harlan County Jane Doe.” She became a central figure in an investigation last year by Reveal from The Center for Investigating Reporting. The project presented Mountain Jane Doe as just one of thousands of people in the United States who are deceased and unidentified.

They are catalogued in the Justice Department-backed National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) by cold-case investigators, forensic anthropologists and police assigned to missing persons units. Reveal also built The Lost & The Found, an app that allows searching NamUs data side by side with missing persons reports in the hopes of facilitating future matches from the public.

Little is known about Blair-Adams’ legacy or her family right now.

Read – Left for dead: How America fails the missing and unidentified

Todd Matthews, a spokesman and head of case management for NamUs based in Fort Worth, Texas, called the identification a triumph for forensic science and public access to government information about the unidentified dead.    

“To finally get confirmation is like Christmas,” he said. “You get this gift that you’ve been waiting for for so long. I can’t even begin to describe the feeling.”

The quest to identify Blair-Adams began when a family member contacted NamUs, believing that Mountain Jane Doe might be a long-lost relative. NamUs asked then-Knox County, Tennessee, cold-case detective Amy Dobbs to collect DNA samples from the family. Dobbs since has gone on to work as a case administrator for NamUs. It’s not entirely clear who in the family made the initial call to NamUs.

Beginning in November 2014, Harlan County’s elected coroner, Philip Bianchi, along with the Kentucky State Police, NamUs and mortuary owner Darla Jackson, launched an effort to exhume Mountain Jane Doe’s remains and determine whether her DNA matched a family that believed she might be kin.

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But they later learned they had dug up the wrong body. Many of the grave markers at the cemetery were mere pieces of aluminum driven into the ground. Over time, they’d been misplaced or turned out to be in the wrong location.

In November, they returned and were able to locate Blair-Adams’ actual grave.

“All of the pieces came together to complete the puzzle,” Dobbs said. “Without having the unidentified exhumed, we never would have connected these cases and officially identified her.”

“I’m still in shock,” said Jackson, the Harlan mortuary owner who took a special interest in the case more than a decade ago. “I just can’t believe it. I felt like it would get solved. I really did. I never lost hope. But I sure didn’t expect to see her name this morning.”

While the Kentucky State Police issued a press release about the identification Wednesday, Mountain Jane Doe’s case never was listed on the agency’s website as one of its official cold cases, and it still isn’t listed as such.    

Dobbs said establishing Blair-Adams’ identity hasn’t closed the case. Now, investigators must determine who killed her. The Kentucky State Police’s Post 10 is asking anyone with information about the case to call (606) 573-3131.   

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G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.